The hollow eclipse of ‘Identity’Some notes of reflection on #MeToo
The current ‘high profile’ case in the #MeToo moment in Nepal involves Krishna Bahadur Bhattachan, an academic widely recognised for the critical contribution he has made to Nepal’s Indigenous Peoples Movement post-1990. Over the years, Bhattachan has furnished a much-needed critique and offered astute analyses of ‘Bahunbad’ on which the ‘Permanent Establishment’ of the Nepali state and its discriminatory practices are founded. His contribution, over the years, has added much weight and potency to the indigenous movement as well as those of other marginalised groups. As an advocate of indigenous rights myself, it is therefore truly unfortunate to see Bhattachan mired in the #MeToo moment. It is sad that there is now a dent in the credible and charismatic voice that has amplified the issues of Nepal’s marginalised population groups in the mainstream politics of Nepal. It is, however, a serious concern at many levels that Bhattachan has mobilised the ‘Aadivasi-Janajati’ trope as a defense in response to the allegations of sexual harassment from the students of the Tribhuvan University.
To be clear on behalf of the women centered in Bhrikuti Rai’s article (‘Tribhuvan University lecturer sexually harassed female students for years’, Page 1, Jan 24, 2019): it is fair to accept that no one wants their name to be a public story for reasons that are not pleasant to talk about, specially if the subject matter under scrutiny bears stigma associated with one’s body and one’s ‘dignity’, and especially in a society filled with malevolent masculine toxicity. Never, if speaking comes with several costs—of losing friendships and social ties, evicted from professional spaces, derided by family and the neighborhood, and of going through emotional duress. Not that students are bereft of self-confidence and devoid of the solidarity that is gradually forming in response to #MeToo, but only a deluded person would put their career, their social life, their safety and dignity on the line simply to tarnish someone’s ‘reputation’. That despite the cost and the potential consequences, the individuals went on to take up the challenge to speak up, speaks volumes of their unflinching spirit and rock-solid bravery.
The ‘identity’ eclipse
Bhattachan’s response to the allegation was, however, appalling. It was arrogant in tone, irresponsible politically, intellectually disingenuous, and devoid of the ethical self. To claim that the allegation toward him is an attack on the movement is to suggest that he ‘embodies’ the movement. And as such, for the movement to survive, he has to remain intact. It is irresponsible to patronise the movement like that because in doing so, he may have inadvertently obliged the entire ‘movement’ to take account of the allegation against him, and prevented the progressive as well as feminist ‘non-indigenous’ voices from entering the fray. His contribution notwithstanding, if the movement were to stand on an individual’s ‘reputation’, and not the ‘people’ as its foundation, it would fall further apart over time.
The unnecessary play of ‘identity’ has now unfairly cast the #MeToo moment of Nepal and the Indigenous Movement in opposition to each other. The students, including Rai, the journalist, are now made into agents conspiring against the indigenous movement. It is a convenient move by Bhattachan, albeit also irresponsible because it is divisive along caste and ethnic lines. If ‘identity’ was necessary to play, it could have been accountably mobilised to pose a more potent, although ‘utopian’, question: How might the indigenous movement combine with #MeToo to form a ‘chain of equivalence’ to challenge the systemic conditions that reproduce marginality of women and other minorities alike, everyday? Instead, Bhattachan chose to pose as a victim. Such a simplistic play of ‘identity’ is quite disingenuous of a man regarded for his academic contributions as well as activist commitments.
In throwing down the ‘identity’ gauntlet, Bhattachan’s response may have provided further ammunition to the usual unfair and unpleasant line of questioning underlined by gender: ‘Why would they take so long to identify themselves and the perpetrator publicly?’ (as if doing so would come without the risk of losing one’s career, one’s safety, and one’s dignity) ‘Why now and not when it happened?’ (as if sexual intentions are immediately graspable, and as if everyday social and family conditions encourage women to speak, and worse, speak publicly) ‘If it happened, where is the evidence?’ (as if one walks into a classroom, an office room, or just a room, everyday, with a hidden recording device, expecting to be harassed).
And as if the cards are not already decked against the women, her ‘intention’ and ‘character’ put under national scrutiny, the men’s ‘CV’, in turn, is further furnished: ‘Why would a family man, an intellectual man, a progressive writer, a ‘good man’, commit what he is accused of?’ And just like that, the table turns. The victim becomes the perpetrator, and the perpetrator, victim.
More pertinent questions
If taking account of the allegations made to him on a point-by-point basis demanded the humility that our patriarchal history has seized from us men, and if it was beneath the ‘intellectual acumen’ of Bhattachan, the least he could have done was to show where he is located in relation to the #MeToo movement in general, what kind of questions his location and his vocation—as an academic ‘guerrilla’ and gender-rights advocate—raise in terms of seeing the #MeToo movement through the prism of ‘power’ underlined inextricably by relations of gender and sexuality? How these unequal relations of power are historically situated in the patriarchal formation of the state and society, of which #MeToo is both the symptom and the outcome? How, in the South Asian context, Hinduism and its morbid incarnation in the form of the ‘family’ and the ‘everyday state’ may be the arbiter and the incubator of mentalities that misrecognise women and take toxic shapes in unexpected spaces?
Equally important, are questions of how the academic culture of TU particularly configures in this constellation of power, privilege, and patriarchy, and where a figure like him, an ‘indigenous scholar’, is located relationally in such a constellation?
Almost predictably, the VC of TU has stated no need to take any responsibility in protecting the rights of women within the campus—“Our country’s laws are enough to deal with the issue.” But what of the responsibility of those who nurture the minds of future generations to ensure rules and regulations to protect those they teach? How does Bhattachan take ownership of these questions, if not the specificities of the individual cases of sexual harassment? He owed that much to the students and the world, being the advisor, the academic and the activist that he is.
From one man to the others
It is now fair to say that we currently inhabit a conjunctural moment, a zeitgeist even, that is demanding of all of us men—regardless of our politics, class, caste, ethnicity, affiliation, fraternity and ‘brotherhood’—to momentarily rise above these containers of our ‘self’—to introspect and reflect on our participation and complicity in perpetuating the culture of sexual violation of women in ways that are either real or symbolic, implicit or explicit, and intended or ‘unintended’.
This teachable watershed moment in the feminist movement demands this. Instead, if we choose to cling on to the false opposition between the cases of sexual harassment and the identity movement, we miss the historic opportunity to redress the institutionalised and normalised practices that perpetuate sexist misrecognition of women, of her identity, as subordinates in all areas of society, including within the Indigenous Peoples Movement.
Whatever qualifiers precede our common marker—the Janajati man, the nationalist man, the Bhramin man, the family man, the religious man, the Madhesi man, the educated man, the intellectual man, or simply, the good man—it is about time we concede the privilege and begin to shed the cloak of authority bequeathed upon us that subjugate women, and stop leveraging ‘victimhood’ to assemble more power and legitimacy the moment it is convenient.
We are too entitled to history to even consider some soul-searching to come to face-to-face with the flawed version of us that has been mirrored in our direction by the present #MeToo moment, for it is not in the ‘blood’ of a man to show humility in the face of adversity. It is about time we begin to listen to her, to believe in her. In the process, some of the accused, could be you or me, may end up paying the price that is ‘unfair’ or ‘undeserved’.
However, this moment, this spirit of our time, is much bigger than one or two men who claim to be wrongfully charged; for it is a historical fact that women, too many to count, have been wronged and failed throughout history—by their own people and the system. In calling out for solidarity of women across the globe, the concession of ‘power’ is also perhaps what the #MeToo movement demands—of men and of history.
Ninglekhu Limbu is a Social Science researcher
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